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Treaty council fights long-standing Spirit Lake dispute

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FORT TOTTEN, N.D -- A small group of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe has formed a treaty council continuing to fight for the preservation of its tribal lands, water and fishing rights.

The center of its focus challenges the U.S. Court of Appeals decision dismissing the tribe's 15-year-old lawsuit claiming of the ownership of Spirit Lake.

The treaty council was formed as part of a grass-roots effort to protect and preserve the tribe's land and water rights, Estelle Cavanaugh said.

The Mni Wakan Treaty Council, although not formally recognized by its tribal government, continues to collect maps, records, historical documents and oral testimony in an effort to prove where the original boundaries of the reservation were under the 1867 treaty and two subsequent treaties that established the reservation.

Cavanaugh said much of the information was lost making it difficult to find enough additional documentation beyond the treaties to argue the boundaries in federal court, but a handful of tribal elders remember watching the signs for the boundary lines shift over the years as lake levels rose flooding the land. State and federal workers moved the signs marking the boundaries.

Today, the treaty council, composed largely of tribal elders and preservationists, want the boundary lines redrawn to reflect the tribe's original boundaries and reclaim the ownership of the lake.

The treaty defined the borders at the eastern point of Spirit Lake continuing "along the waters of the lake." Tribal leaders maintained the treaty refers to the north shore of the lake and includes the water on the Spirit Lake reservation. The state of North Dakota argued that maps and documents used in the 1900s don't show the lake as a part of the reservation. A 1976 BIA memo stated the lake was held in trust for the tribe. The memo was introduced as part of the evidence in the ownership lawsuit filed in 1986. In May a federal judge upheld an earlier court decision to dismiss the case because the tribe failed to file suit within a 12-year statute of limitations.

In a federal ruling January 2000, federal Judge Bruce Van Sickle said the tribe had waited too long to sue for ownership of the lake, but it wasn't 1981 that tribal officials realized they would have to sue to reclaim the lake.

Fluctuating lake levels exposed land submerged in 1867. Drops in the lake levels exposed the land and it was used by 1889, when North Dakota became a state, for farms and homes. The lake is more than 8 feet higher than it was 1867 and the tribe says the flooded land belongs to the Spirit Lake tribe under the treaty.

Members of the treaty councils of South Dakota's Plains tribes signed a resolution supporting the council's efforts at the Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin Treaty Council meeting in Wakpala, S.D., in June, but Cavanaugh said the council wants help from more tribes across the nation.

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Cavanaugh said the boundary issue stretches far beyond a simple border dispute. It includes water rights, impacts tourism and economic development on both sides of the border. Already the treaty council is faced with trying to clean up Spirit Lake, asserting its rights allowing tribal members to fish and hunt along with its rights to further economic development on the shoreline.

Tribal members said the city of Devils Lake draws its water from the lake without compensating the tribe for its use. The city has used the lake as a water supply since 1952.

Losing such battles, she said, diminishes the strength of the treaties signed more than 130 years ago.

Spirit Lake elders, some in their 80s, say signs have been moved little by little over the years further into reservation lands, but that movement was hardly noticeable until about 20 years ago when some began to remember where the signs had been when they were children.

More than 200 tribal members joined the treaty council in a recent walk and ground blessing. Taking turns with a post hole digger, they placed a marker at northern boundary of Spirit Lake, pledging to watch over the tribe's treaty rights for the preservation of the land and water.

A few days after the marker was erected, it was vandalized. Tribal members went back to the to repair the marker with duct tape, but no sooner than they made repairs it was damaged again. Now it sits inconspicuously along the roadside bent and damaged in disrespect.

Cavanaugh said the small treaty council is struggling to gain recognition from other larger treaty organizations that left it out of treaty meetings. She said she hopes the tribal council will pass a resolution formally recognizing the group.

"We're hoping in the months to come to create some alliances with these tribes. We need to network and reach out," Cavanaugh said.

The treaty council's collection of maps, documents and oral historical accounts will be placed in a library allowing all to view them. Some of the maps and documents given to the council came from white people who kept copies of older county and BIA maps and government documents that were lost, Cavanaugh said.

Some tribal elders, who have held some of the historical tribal documents, stepped forward to place them in the council's trust, she said.